‘I walked out of the Ahmedabad University classroom with a lot of hope for our future’

Maheshwer Peri attended classes that were part of Ahmedabad University’s foundation programme to understand what interdisciplinary education means and why interest in liberal arts education is surging.

Students of social sciences, life sciences and engineering working on trying to solve a real life problem (Image : Ahmedabad University)Students of social sciences, life sciences and engineering working on trying to solve a real life problem (Image : Ahmedabad University)

Team Careers360 | July 1, 2024 | 02:33 PM IST

By Maheshwer Peri

NEW DELHI: I am used to university and campus visits. But this was a completely different one. The vice-chancellor of Ahmedabad University Professor Pankaj Chandra and his colleagues, led by Dr Vinay Tanavde and Professor Shohini Ghosh, decided to forgo presentations and make me spend the day in their classrooms, amongst students, instead. And it became one of my most memorable experiences.

Increasingly, universities acknowledge that there is a need to develop students into thoughtful, socially-conscious citizens with critical thinking abilities. There is an understanding that churning out students with domain-specific knowledge who think in silos will not be the right solution for addressing modern-day problems.

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Interdisciplinary approach, focus on research, ethics and solutions driven by empathy are more needed than ever.

Ahmedabad University foundation courses

At Ahmedabad University, every student has to go through a foundation programme. A history student would learn data sciences while a commerce student will be learning life sciences too.

The questions the university asked itself when deciding on the curriculum was this: “What is essential to our graduates?” They decided the qualities they wanted were “critical thinking, communication, ethical reasoning, and a global perspective” and built a foundation programme that “ensures every student excels in a complex, interconnected world”.

So, the university decided to create a foundation programme covering six domains divided into three broad categories to enable the student to build their own perspective. The three categories are:

  1. Behaviour, constitution and civilisation
  2. Biology and life
  3. Materials

The course also would inculcate essential skills in data and communication in all students. No matter what a student’s major is or what degree they are pursuing – BA, BCom or BSc – oral and written communication and data interpretation are a part of their academic training.

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To teach these six broad domains and make it easy for students to understand, the university created four “studios”. These are areas that a 17 year-old student could easily identify. The studios are so created that students understand that problems are not simplistic and no one department can solve a problem on their own. The four studios are:

  1. Water
  2. Environment and climate change
  3. Democracy and justice
  4. Neighbourhoods

The four studio classes I attended had students from different domains – sciences, arts, engineering, history and more – discussing issues. The diversity of the student cohorts ensured great conversation, varying perspectives and a fresh look at solving complex issues.

Ahmedabad University: Subjects, assessments

The foundation programme is spread across the first two semesters with students spending almost half the time in each semester learning at the studios and the other half learning their chosen major. Assessments and evaluation also include learning that happened at the studios.

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I sat through each of the four studio sessions. Each class had great gender and academic diversity ensuring good debates, varying points of view and diverse opinions.

The first class was about neighbourhoods. The class had a mix of students from social sciences, life sciences and engineering. There were two faculty members – one from life sciences and another from social sciences. I was attending the foundation-level class of the first semester.

The conversations ranged from how the malaria parasite is born to the socio-economic compulsions of slums in our neighbourhoods. The students had visited the slums and seemed to understand people living in them, their lives and compulsions. One student argued “for the people in the slums, the priority is occupation and livelihoods. Hygiene isn’t a priority. The municipal corporations must take up that job to help them”. I walked out of the classroom with a lot of hope for our future.

The next class I attended was the ‘Democracy and Justice’ studio. Here, students discussed the dowry act and abortion. There was a heated discussion on the rights of a woman to terminate pregnancy and the rights of an unborn baby. There was a consensus that women must be the ultimate authority on such matters. The boys were seen arguing and fighting for the rights of women. There was also a nuanced argument on the rights of parents to know the gender of the unborn child.

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The third class was the ‘Environment and Climate Change’ studio. It was discussing carbon emissions and deforestation to make way for modern infrastructure. Students were forthright and unafraid to voice their thoughts. Critical thinking and empathy were noticeable traits amongst all students. There was also a mention of a big fat wedding and the resultant carbon emissions. One student was bold enough to point out that their university campus was once forest land.

The next class I attended was discussing trading water as a commodity. Students were grouped into teams. They created a game for electronic trading with water as a commodity. It is like any stock market, with prices going up and down based on the demand and supply, spot buying, etc. Multiple teams were trading, negotiating with other teams and coordinating with each other.

At the end of it all, the students did not just learn how stock markets function but also discussed the need to curb speculation in essential commodities like water and the need to make it a basic right. In fact, one of the teams decided not to go for profits so there is enough supply of water for others.

It is hard to picture a traditional programme bringing together so many strands of thought and learning into one class, allowing for so many perspectives and a truly interdisciplinary approach to real-world problems. But a liberal arts programme – when implemented as effectively as in Ahmedabad University – can achieve that and ensure students excel in our “complex, interconnected world".

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